Football, politics: media siblings

POLITICS has become more of a spectator sport, like football, as it has adapted to the format, pressures, and potential of the television era. This is not to say that the issues of governing the nation are taken less seriously by the public. People do care about the performance of their elected officials and the sensibleness of national policies.

But have you noticed how the entertainment-news devices of mass communications -- saturation coverage, promotional hype, morning talk-show interviews, instant analysis, post-event analysis -- has made media siblings of the inauguration and the Super Bowl?

The White House has even tried to make a virtue of this connection, with its theme of a ``people's'' celebration, working its Washington swearing-in and partying schedule around the professional football finale in Palo Alto, Calif., instead of going head to head with the Super Bowl the way ``Dallas'' avoids ``Dynasty'' in prime time.

Notably, in last weekend's media-league rivalry between politics and sports, it was politics that yielded the coveted Sunday television slot to The Game.

To a degree, the political spectacle, whether elections or inaugurations, should be fun. They should draw crowds. The solemn swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps (in this case a public repeat of yesterday's private ceremony in the White House, with a snow storm swirling outside) should become a moment visibly etched in the national consciousness. The traditional parade down Pennsylvania Avenue should be just that, a parade with all the bunting, bands, and military brass the street will hold.

An inauguration is a way to show that the hands of the political clock have moved, that a change is being made into the next quadrennial period. And such a splendid moment of passage seems perfectly made for television.

Still, much of the public feels restless with the intrusiveness of mass communications on their political process. Congress is trying to respond to this mood -- for example, by limiting the networks' use of exit polls on election day to prevent announcing results before balloting actually ends.

Ironically, one proposed solution -- uniform national hours for poll closing -- would make election practices conform more conveniently to the networks' format, rather than the other way around. If they succeed, the politicians could claim they were responsive to the public's irritation with the networks while at the same time strengthening the symbiosis between media coverage and their careers.

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